Okay. I give up. Why do Jews do that?
If you grew up actively Jewish, you probably won’t have to ask that question, at least about some things that might seem obvious to you.
If you see Chanukah candles, you don’t have to ask “What’s with Jews and candles?” If you’ve grown up as even a three-times-a-year-shul-going Jew, you know the answer to “Do Jews fast?” If you’ve spent any time at all around Jewish men or boys (and in some communities women and girls as well), you can answer “Why do Jews wear pope-like caps?” — or at least, even if you don’t know why they wear them, you’re too familiar with kippot to associate them with Francis, Benedict, or John Paul.
Each one of those is a chapter title in the book, and Avram Mlotek answers each one of them.
That might mean that Rabbi Mlotek isn’t writing exactly to you. But he might be writing to someone you know, live near, went to college with, or maybe even are married to.
Rabbi Mlotek’s new book, “Why Jews Do That,” published by Skyhorse Publishing, is aimed at Jews who don’t know as much about their birthright as they want to know, and it is aimed at their friends too. In a light, irreverent, but straightforward and honest way, he explains why Jews do what we do, and what it means when we do it.
Avram Mlotek is an Orthodox rabbi; he grew up in Teaneck, where his parents, Zalmen and Debra, still live, as part of a thriving and prominent Yiddishist family. That sense of Yiddishkeit permeates his book. He’s also one of the founders of Base; that group’s orientation toward Jews in their 20s and 30s is palpable as well.
The book grew out of his work as a Jewish educator, Rabbi Mlotek said.
“I was staffing a Honeymoon Israel trip” — that’s a nonprofit group that sends young at least partially Jewish couples to Israel with Jewish educators for 10 days, “a hiddush,” an innovation, “sort of Birthright for Adults,” he explained. “This was the first trip from New York, and I was privileged to work on it. It was 20 couples, from multifaith families or with one Jew and one non-Jew, or with two Jewish partners but at least one of them was unaffiliated.” It’s the sort of work he loves to do.
“One night, overlooking the Kinneret,” the Sea of Galilee, “it was a free night in our itinerary, so we sat around in a circle, and it was like a rapid-fire ‘Ask the Rabbi’ session. It was so exhilarating. It was so overwhelming. The questions were coming at me, so fast; some of them were very basic and fundamental, but they” — the people on the trip — “hadn’t had the opportunity to ask a rabbi about them before. They hadn’t ever met a rabbi before, or not since Hebrew school or their bar or bat mitzvah.
“That planted the seeds for this book. It’s a playful introduction to Judaism. Each chapter is a question that I attempt to answer in a succinct and playful and thoughtful way.”
The sections are divided into Time, Props, Purpose, Grub, and God. At times, they veer into unexpected directions; the second explaining the differences between the Reform, Conservative, and Reform worldviews soon — and note that it would have to be soon; no chapter is more than two pages — veers into a more enthusiastic discussion of why Jews were said to have horns. (It’s a “poetic misreading of the Hebrew,” but that makes the book sound more academic than it is.) He also quotes Rabbanit Sarah Hurwitz, the pioneering feminist Orthodox ordained spiritual leader, on that page.
Rabbi Mlotek’s Base is an unconventional outreach program aimed at people in their 20s and 30s; it’s non-denominational, non-standard, and non-pushy. Rabbi Mlotek and his wife, Yael Kornfeld, and two of their friends, Faith Brigham Leener and Jon Leener, “pitched the idea to Hillel International’s office of innovation about what it might look like to have empowered rabbinic couples open their houses to serve young post-college Jews, when they’re not rushing to join shuls but still seeking community and connection.” Base got its original funding from UJA-Federation of New York and Hillel; Rabbi Mlotek and Ms. Kornfeld and their three children run its house in Manhattan and the Leeners do the same in Brooklyn. Base (which means “beit,” or house in Hebrew, and also has its obvious English meaning, the not-unrelated home) now has nine houses, including four in New York, two in Chicago, and one in Berlin.
Rabbi Mlotek also is Base’s overall director of spiritual life.
Base and Rabbi Mlotek’s book share a sensibility. Part of that comes from the illustrations, which were created by two of his Base students, Faby Rodriguez and Jenny Young. “They both happen to be Jews of color,” Rabbi Mlotek said. “One of them said, when I approached her about collaborating, ‘I wish I had this kind of book when I was converting, because it addresses some of these basic questions.’
“So I worked with the two of them in putting this book together. It’s meant to be a playful coffee-table kind of book, but it’s also serious and informative and has plenty of notes and references.” The references, indeed, are often where the weightier texts come in — though in small doses.
There is more than one reason for the book, Rabbi Mlotek continued. “It’s not only that people are shy about asking basic questions, it’s also that there is perceived to be an overtone of heaviness with religion. Especially with the uptick in anti-Semitism, I think that if Judaism is going to live, it needs to be celebrated and joyous.
“That’s where the playfulness comes in.”
The book is inclusive, he said. “I do think that I’m coming from my own particular lens. I have Orthodox training, but I am mindful of who I am talking to. I want people to have access to Torah, and to serious Jewish content.
“I am mindful that how we talk and what we talk about can automatically alienate or include others, and I want to be true to the tradition, and I also want to err on the side of inclusion.
“I’m not talking to people who are planning to live Orthodox lives,” as he he does. “I am talking to people who are curious about Jewish fundamental issues, and about what goes into building a Jewish home.”
To that end, he does not engage with such hot-button issues as gender, and although he talks about Israel as a core Jewish belief he doesn’t emphasize it, but he does present a range of possibilities to answer many of the questions. And he isn’t afraid to ask real questions. Take, for example, the last one. “What If I Don’t Believe Any Of This Crap?” “Welcome to the tribe!,” he answers. After some explanation of the range of possible beliefs and actions, “As the Torah says, “Do what is right and good (in the sight of God),” he writes. “You got this.”